Handgunning for varmints

Armadillos make prime targets

We were never overrun with those juicy targets we read about in the big sporting magazines — articles by guys who referred to their shooting cult as “varminters.”

For example, the nearest prairie dog, as close as I could figure it, was about 800 miles away. And forget groundhogs — I would have shot Punxatawney Phil, given the opportunity, but he and his kin resided way up there on the East coast, a bit far for wanna-be varmint shooters.

So we made do. With turtles, the rare coyote, crows and whatever else happened to crawl, fly or slither into our sights.

I had this incredibly accurate Marlin bolt in .22 WMR with a cheap Weaver scope on it. In front of witnesses (and with a hell of a lot of luck) I shot the head off a swimming water moccasin at about 40 yards. Taking a rest on a fence post, I led him about 2 inches in front of his head as he swam up a bayou, and apparently hit him, based on all the thrashing after the shot.

But we thirsted for mass shootings of vermin to test our shooting skills. And we had to make do with moving from place to place up and down bayous, and across grandparents’ fields, always having to be extra careful where the bullet would go because we just didn’t have those wide-open spaces like those “varmint” writers who populated the big hunting magazines.

Then, later, my younger cousins and I discovered the thrill of shooting armadillos at night with Q-Beams and heavy handguns.

I had an old-model Ford Bronco at the time — it was a small two-door, had a metal roof, absolutely Spartan interior and a small-block V-8 motor, and it might get stuck but that engine would spin those big mudder tires until it clawed its way down to sitting on the frame.

It was, in the terminology of the country boys back then, a “Goin’ Jessie.”

Lacking even the thought of insulation under the hood, one of my hunting crew would sit on a folded towel, his feet resting on the iron winch bumper, and flick a Q-Beam back and forth across the fields and pastures as I cruised them slowly, overladen with young men — not one of them armed with anything less than a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson.

It was hilarious to watch the Q-Beam guy: He constantly was shifting, one butt cheek becoming medium rare from sitting on the hood and forcing him to shift to the other side to let that one cool off.

If he flicked his light over an armadillo, the excitement was immediate.

He would beat his fist in a drumbeat staccato as he tried to hold the light on the ’dillo, which was blissfully going about the business of rooting for whatever it is they root for, completely oblivious to his impending demise.

I would bring the Bronco to as quick a stop as possible without throwing the light guy into the pasture, and kids would claw their way out of the truck, climbing over one another in their excitement to get in line and get a shot at the varmint.

Once everyone had positioned on a straight line, paralleling the path of the armadillo, one person was the designated shooter. He got the first shot.

This guy would be positioned between the line of shooters and the light guy, who could not shoot — he had to hold the light steady on the target.

Everyone stood there, their sights on line, tracking the hapless armadillo that still had no idea a firing squad was preparing to execute him — at least that was the plan.

The designated shooter got one shot — and the second he touched off, every shooter on the line started shooting at the armadillo, which, fatally hit or not, took off at a speed somewhere just short of light and headed for neutral ground, tufts of grass, dirt clumps and everything else blowing up around him in the hailstorm of bullets following his path.

It looked like he had ventured into a machine gun battle in No Man’s Land between the trenches in World War I.

Sometimes we rolled one. Many times, they ran off. The next week, or a month later, we would kill one that was missing a part of his tail — or other appendage. As many as we shot, we never seemed to put a dent in the population, and they continued to dig huge mounded holes that would break a horse’s leg or cause a bush-hog rotary clipper to break a shear pin or ruin its clutch.

Armadillos are strange little monozygotic creatures — which means they have litters of four, all the same sex because they all come from one egg. They have banded shells, and hair covering their soft underbelly. They are prey for coyotes and bobcats, but can roll up into a leathered ball, or dig their way into the earth with incredible speed to escape another varmint intent on eating them.

With their low body temperatures, they are excellent testing animals for scientists, who discovered they carry the Hansen’s Disease virus (aka leprosy) in the wild.

Which meant we never touched one after we shot it, preferring to leave it where it dropped. They have a lot of meat under those weird banded shells, so buzzards and carnivorous mammals feasted after our nights out with our lights and handguns.

I have heard armadillos were table fare during the Great Depression down here, sometimes referred to as “poor man’s pork” — but I never had the courage to clean, cook and eat one.

But they destroy fields, pastures and gardens with their constant rooting, so no one ever sounded off in defense of the beasts when we went out night shooting. I never understood why we didn’t draw the attention of the game wardens with all that shooting and lights flicking about; one of the boys’ dads told me we sounded like a “young war” out in those hills at times.

This was a sport we enjoyed for a number of years, until we hit an incredibly hard winter two years in a row and the armadillos just seemed to disappear. It got so hard to find one that we finally just quit going out at night looking for them.

I suspect the consecutive bad winters knocked them back. Reading up on the species, I figured they were slow reproducers, and we were just out of targets for a decade or so.

Louis Guedon, my shooting buddy, called me one night some years later. He had graduated high school, and came to Louisiana to go to LSU and major in agriculture business. He had brought his girlfriend up to his family farm in Mississippi, where we did all our shooting.

“You’ll never guess what I saw by the road this evening,” he said. “An armadillo! Big fat one. He was rooting around on the side of the pavement, and I stopped and sighted on him with my magnum.

“I got so excited — and sentimental and mushy about what a great time we had hunting them — I almost didn’t shoot him.”